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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Opera Review: A Catalogue of Crime

Ildar Abdrazakov dodges bullets in WNO's Don Giovanni.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Super stud: Ildar Abdrazakov grapples with unearthly forces at the climax of Don Giovanni.
Photo © 2012 Washington National Opera/The Kennedy Center.
The Washington National Opera's current revival of John Pascoe's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni features the return of bass Ildar Abdrazakov in the title role. It is a towering portrayal, and not just because of the big Russian's sturdy frame.

On Saturday night, Mr. Abdrazakov played the Don as a force of nature, bringing dulcet tones and genuine sexual charisma to the part. In Act I, the dark-voiced singer walked a fine between charm and villainy with humor and honor intact. His Champagne Aria and cry of "Vive la Liberta!" were mission statements for this anarchic opera, ringing out what would become a Romantic battle-cry with all the meaning and power it deserves. At the climax of the Act I party scene, the Don's skill at sophisticated swordplay (dispatching four combatants and dodging bullets) proved to a thrilled audience that the anarchic title character cannot be killed by conventional means.

From this peak, Mr. Abdrazakov leads the audience on the steep slope of the Don's decline in the Act II. His brutal treatment of Leporello (Andrew Foster-Williams) and Masetto (Aleksey Bogdanov) undermined the audience's sympathy for the Don's hi-jinks. Brutish behavior in the banquet scene (nearly raping one of the onstage musicians on the dinner table) recalled another one of Mr. Abdrazakov's trademark roles: Attila. Only in his confrontation with the statue of the Commendatore (Soloman Howard) did the Don's nobility return. When the curtain rose for encores, he sat, grinning on the stage, still embodying the romantic hero who had survived another adventure.

This production updates the story to the 20th century, making the Don part of a military structure under the overall leadership of the Commendatore. Leporello (Andrew Foster-Williams) is his batman, always at the ready to help his master in their nocturnal adventures. Curiously, the role of the servant seemed diminished next to Mr. Abdrazakov's smoldering presence, but Mr. Foster-Williams sang a fine Catologue Aria and engaged convincing comic business with Donna Elvira in Act II.

In Mr. Pascoe's version, Donna Elvira (Barbara Frittoli) is the unwed mother of the Don's child. Perhaps it was that addition that gave this character pride of place among the Don's romantic conquests. Carrying her bundled baby, Ms. Frittoli's Elvira is presented as the Don's (continually rejected) would-be savior, trying to get him to acknowledge the child and cease his wicked ways. Right before the Masquerade scene, Ms. Frittoli had a marvelous, silent moment. She crossed herself. This simple gesture revealed much of this character's dimension, making sense of her seemingly sudden decision to take holy orders in the opera's epilogue.

Meagan Miller brought similar depth to Donna Anna, too often portrayed as a cardboard harbinger of vengeance. Her extended scena leading up to "Or chai si l'onore" the most compelling part of that long act, not just narrating the lead-in to that famous aria but vividly illustrating the events of her father's death. She was helped by thoughtful conducting from Philippe Auguin.) Ms. Miller sang the famous number with force and clarity of tone, riveting the audience.

As Don Ottavio, tenor Juan Francisco Gatell joined the ranks of singers who can make this callow youth a compelling figure through moving performances of "Dalla sua pace" and "Il mio tesoro." Aleksey Bogdanov was a bluff Masetto who got better as the evening went on. Another big Russian, he could be a mirror image for Mr. Abdrazakov. Veronica Cangemi sang with cajoling, melting tone in Zerlina's two arias. Finally, Mr. Howard proved a resonant Commendatore, although he sounded slightly amplified in the finale.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.